I’ve been following Jonathan Haidt since about 2013, when I saw David Blankenhorn interview him at this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hszgWVXTziI, which was just after Blankenhorn had just come out in favor of gay marriage (he was officially against up to 2012).
Regarding Haidt, he seems to be mining Indian scriptural texts for ideas on moral philosophy. One of his big ideas, as he expresses it, is “the elephant drives the mahout”. By this he means that someone first has a conviction or a strong feeling for a particular moral position, and then he defends it with his rational faculties. That is, reason does not drive faith but faith drives reason. This closely corresponds with Lord Krishna’s declaration that one develops a particular faith according to the modes of nature one has acquired (BG 17.3). And a more recent article in the Atlantic featured a picture of Haidt with some pictures of Ganesha in the background. This causes me to think there is some connection between India and Haidt. (I had tried writing him to ask him about it, but he did not respond.)
So, on the point of Haidt and Dhanurdhara Maharaja’s attempt to analyze through Haidt’s perspective Bhakti Vikasa Swami’s book “Women: Masters or Mothers?” (WMM)–and more generally the controversy in ISKCON regarding traditionalist and liberal perspectives with respect to women–if Haidt’s ideas draw at least in part from Vedic literature, why rely on Haidt at all to explain the controversy when we can rely on Vedic literature like Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam to explain it? One of the notable characteristics of Maharaja’s essay is that he relies extensively on Haidt’s philosophical lens (and the magic words “time, place, and circumstance”) and little if any on sastra or Srila Prabhupada commentaries.
To see why this is a problem, take for example a perspective expressed by a senior GBC man who opposes WMM. He said that the following passage from WMM is offensive to ISKCON’s traveling women preachers. Here is the passage (from WMM 1st edition):
“Yet unfortunately by their being independent, itinerant, and female, ISKCON’s traveling women preachers embody the feministic ideal: that the biggest women are out in the world, doing what the men do, with no family connections or responsibilities” (164 – 165).
My response to the GBC man (I was face-to-face with him) was that these women preachers, if bona fide, would not only agree with Bhakti Vikasa Maharaja’s assessment that it is indeed bad that there are itinerant, independent female preachers but that they would also preach the same thing as well. I explained that according to the Bhagavatam, in a time of emergency anyone except kshatriyas can perform the occupational duties of another (see SB 7.11.17), so an itinerant, independent, female preacher would explain that the present time is indeed in a state of emergency and would also preach and give suitable instruction how to take society from an emergency to normal. The point here is that one must perform the hard work of trying to understand Srila Prabhupada in a way that is in line with the shastras and acharyas, not out of line with them.
And this work cannot be avoided without adverse consequence. Just waving the magic words, “time, place, circumstance” and then acribing to Srila Prabhupada’s name all manner of speculation is a great disservice to him, for it not only portrays Srila Prabhupada as someone who on occasion breaks with the parampara but it misguides people on the path back to Godhead.
Non-compliance with this principle of trying to understand how whatever Srila Prabhupada said or did is in line with shastra has created trouble for Maharaja’s analysis. As per him, a “careful book review addressing in depth the various issues and arguments raised” would have required him to not only “deal elaborately with each, or many, of the book’s points, either defending them or refuting them,” he would have also risked “getting drawn into a long and fruitless debate with people entrenched in their views,” an exercise he “definitely had no interest in or time to initiate.” Hence, he decided that “it would be better to just highlight the core issue and address the controversy in a more general way.” Maharaja very graciously wants to do good to all sides of the controversy.
But the problem he is trying to avoid necessarily arises on account of attempting to avoid it in the first place. That is, by trying to address the controversy “in a more general way,” he avoids the very work that must be undertaken in order to understand the controversy clearly at all.
And even more troublesome for his analysis is that he relies heavily on a non-devotee’s philosophical perspective rather than relying heavily on shastra. Although there is sometimes actual truth to be found in speculative philosophies, the truth presented is at best partial–a mixture of truth and “anti-truth”, jnanam and ajanam. Hence, Srila Prabhupada in his debate with Professor Staal noted that “only the incomplete views of various parties apart from the bona fide Vedic lines give a rupturous appearance to the Bhagavad-gita.” In the same way, on account of relying on the perspective of a speculative philosopher, Maharaja’s analysis ends up giving a “rupturous” appearance to Srila Prabhuapda’s teachings.
For example, Maharaja says,
“So, what about all the direct quotes by Śrīla Prabhupāda describing varṇāśrama and its traditionalist values? If that’s what Śrīla Prabhupāda wanted, then by all means his followers should take up the service to implement it and show others its value—but only as long as they don’t, in trying to implement it, lose their heart and kick too many good, sincere, Kṛṣṇa conscious women aside—women who can be good mothers with love and respect for tradition but who also need to be reasonably empowered according to their natures and karmic situations.”
What does he mean by “if that’s what Srila Prabhupada wanted”? Of course it’s what Srila Prabhupada wanted. It’s what Lord Krishna and the acharyas want. That’s why it is taught in the Gita and Bhagavatam, which were spoken specifically for the people of this age. “People who have lost their vision due to the dense darkness of ignorance in the age of Kali shall get light from this Purana,” that’s still good, right?
The problem is not that Bhakti Vikasa Swami has written a mean-spirited book that will “kick too many good, sincere, Krsna conscious women aside.” Indeed, many “good, sincere, and Krsna conscious women” have praised the book. The problem is that Dhanurdhara Maharaja has his own doubts about “all the direct quotes by Srila Prabhupada describing varnasrama and its traditionalist values.” If all those varnasrama and traditionalist values really aren’t suitable for the present day life in Kali-yuga, then what are they doing in scriptures and purports to those scriptures that say of themselves that they are for the present day?
I don’t think Maharaja has a good answer for this. But one thing is for sure: no one–even one of Maharaja’s high calibre of austerity–is going to come to the correct conclusion, the parampara siddhanta, except by way of doing the hard work of debating these matters in depth. Therefore Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami has said: siddhAnta baliyA citte nA kara alasa, iha ha-ite kRSNe lage sudrdha mAnasa, “A sincere student should not neglect the discussion of such conclusions, considering them controversial, for such discussions strengthen the mind. Thus one’s mind becomes attached to Sri Krishna” (CC Adi 2.117).